The first edition of Cul de Sac was born in Boston
on a rainy day in the late 1980s; as guitarist/composer Glenn Jones, keyboardist
Robin Amos, drummer Chris Guttmacher, and bassist Chris Fujiwara began their
exploration of sonic possibilities in a primarily instrumental mode. Combining
several worlds of sound into an ever evolving series of sounds and possibilities;
certainly some Krautrock is in there, as well as several different countries
and continents, open tuning, noise, electronics, psychedelia, dub, groove,
rock, space rock, post rock (whatever that means), folk, surf, and much more
are grist for the Cul de Sac sonic mill. They have collaborated with musical
geniuses John Fahey, and Damo Suzuki, and through various personnel changes
Cul de Sac continues to blossom and grow to this day, with their recent releases
finding them at the top of their creative game. The following email interview
with Glenn Jones which originally appeared in issue #4, should provide a fair
introduction and illumination into what Cul de Sac has been, and is all about.
What inspired you to want to make music in the first place?
G.K.J.: Hearing Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love. Nothing
was the same after Hendrix. I was 14 when it came out and read a review of
it that said, "Jimi Hendrix is a sort of musical Hieronymus Bosch, giving
us a guided tour of Hell." No one ever described a Herman's Hermits album
that way! For several days that sentence repeated itself over and over in
my mind, and when I couldn't stand it anymore, I bought the record with money
from my paper-route. I can't imagine anyone describing such a beautiful album
that way today, but at the time Hendrix's music was so new, one searched for
words to describe it. It's still my favorite Hendrix album.
At the time, a couple high-school friends of mine had acoustic guitars and
I'd noodle around on them whenever I hung out at their houses. After nagging
my parents for what seemed like months, one rainy night my dad drove me to
a music store somewhere in the middle of New Jersey, where one of the salesmen
was a friend of a friend of his, and bought me an acoustic Harmony guitar
Describe the origins of Cul de Sac?
G.K.J.: I'd been in and out of several bands and was, frankly,
fed up working with singers. I wanted to play music in a more open-ended,
more democratic outfit. I wanted this dream band to be loud and aggressive
(thus Chris Guttmacher, our first drummer), to be sonically colorful (thus
Robin Amos, who I'd worked with earlier in an art-punk band called Shut-Up),
and I wanted the band to be dramatic, and not TOO self-repeating. I wanted
to play finger-style guitar some, too, something I hadn't been able to do
Cul de Sac has gone through a few personnel changes over the years; would
you trace the shifts?
G.K.J.: People often ask us about personnel changes, and
from the outside, yeah, I can see how it would appear that the Cul de Sac
line-up is in constant flux. From the inside it doesn't feel that way, though.
Each version of the band worked closely and intensely for years.
Robin Amos, Chris Guttmacher, Chris Fujiwara and I joined up in 1989. Chris
Guttmacher, our first drummer, left in 1993, after two albums. Jon Proudman
has drummed on every record since, and has been in the band for a decade.
Chris Fujiwara played bass on the first four albums; Michael Bloom joined
for the next two; and Jonathan LaMaster, our current bassist (and violinist)
has been with us for three years or so, and plays on Death of the Sun and
The Stranglers Wife, the two most recent albums.
Why do people leave? The usual reasons. Chris Guttmacher wanted to get out
of Boston, and so moved to California in 1994. Chris Fujiwara left after the
John Fahey / Cul de Sac sessions, feeling (perhaps) that the band was too
much one person's vision (mine), and that it was eating up too much of his
time and money. (The band has never earned its daily bread. We still put more
money into the band than we make out of it.) Michael Bloom? Except for musically,
Cul de Sac was not a good experience for Michael, and eventually he just got
fed up with us. I don’t blame him.
How did you meet and befriend the late John Fahey?
G.K.J.: I'd been a fan of John Fahey's music since the early
'70s. I had all his records, which I listened to obsessively. How we met is
an unlikely story, actually, though maybe not if you knew John. I saw John
live every chance I got. At a show in Cambridge in 1978 or 1979, John played
Bola Sete's "Guitar Lamento" and then asked if anyone knew who wrote
it. Now Fahey was at that time (and for many years) obsessed with Sete, a
Brazilian guitarist, whose album, Ocean, John produced and issued on his Takoma
label. (By the way, I consider Ocean to be one of the finest solo guitar albums
ever made, if not THE finest, a perfect marriage of technique and emotion,
combined with great original compositions for guitar.)
People were yelling out ridiculous things like "Barbecue Bob!,"
and "Chet Atkins!" I knew the album well, and after naming Sete
as the composer, John looked up and said, "Wow. No one in New York City
got it. Come see me after the show." I did, and we became, truly, “fast
friends.” (John always made friends quickly, and we were writing and
calling each other within days of our meeting, which we did up till his death,
more than 20 years later.)
Would you tell us a bit about the making of your collaboration with John Fahey
on The Epiphany of Glenn Jones album?
G.K.J.: I was afraid you might ask this one. It's a bloody
story, and one I've repeated too often. It’s all mixed up with horrible
things like hero worship, control, ego, and, finally, just letting go. It's
still kind of embarrassing to talk about, and I'd rather, if you don’t
mind, just let people take in the story in the context of that album's music
and liner notes. Otherwise it just sounds like something out of National Enquirer.
G.P.: Immortality Lessons was a pleasant
surprise. A live on radio gig that turned out
rather well; would you tell us a bit about how it happened?
G.K.J.: Every band who's done more than a couple live radio
broadcasts will tell you -- if you ask them -- that most are pleasant enough
experiences. But once in a blue moon, you find yourself in a situation so
uncomfortable that all you can think about is getting through it as quickly
as possible and cutting your losses.
We got an offer to play live on the radio station at Brandeis University in
Massachusetts. When the gig rolled around, it was summertime and on that particular
day, very humid, in the way that New England humidity is at its worst —
exhausting, dispiriting, deadening, like trying to walk under water. The campus
felt deserted. We found the radio station amidst scores of buildings that
looked all the same. No one was on hand to welcome us. Assuring ourselves
that we had the right date and the right place, we lugged in our equipment,
and sweaty, and unable to muster up any enthusiasm, we set up. And waited.
An engineer finally arrived and began sluggishly arranging mics. Eventually,
the DJ, our host, came in, quickly introduced himself and disappeared into
the control booth to fire up the transmitter. The heat of the day, our host's
apparent indifference, the depressing environment (badly painted, broken,
mismatched furniture; horrible frayed carpet; litter everywhere; stale food
smells) made us irritable and impatient.
By the time we went on the air we were past even pretending to put a brave
face on things. We did what felt like a merely perfunctory set. It was greeted
with a few mumbled thank-yous; we loaded out and left as fast as we could,
disgusted, wondering why we'd even bothered. There hadn’t been so much
as a single phone call to the station.
The DAT of the show sat in a box, unlistened to, for weeks, maybe even months.
Finally someone picked it up, only vaguely recollecting the experience, and
put it on. And what came out of the speakers didn't jibe with what we remembered
at all. The music was loose, playful, emotional, dramatic, and utterly transcended
the experience of making it. I know, I know! Self-praise is no praise at all,
and all that, but I feel like we almost can’t take credit for the album,
that it made itself, almost in spite of us, even. This is Immortality Lessons.
Death of the Sun is one of the most beautiful things Cul de Sac has ever done;
can you tell me a bit about what went into it’s making?
G.K.J.: Thanks! Death of the Sun is an experiment, inspired
by the Fahey/Cul de Sac Epiphany album and what we felt were the tracks that
worked best on it. It owes its genesis to Robin, who wanted to work with sampling
technology, and who paired up with Jake Trussell, whose area of expertise
that is. From sound recordings we each submitted, Robin and Jake created sonic
canvases -- around which, on top of which, or in spite of which -- we constructed
the pieces that came to make up the album. Not everything worked. In fact,
more stuff was left on the editing room floor than made it onto the album.
And not everything worked in the same way. Each track posed its own unique
set of questions. But the biggest rub was how to answer questions that, by
their thorny, non-verbal nature, resist articulation? It’s like trying
to hold onto quicksilver. Your ear, your instincts tells you something fails,
and you rack your brain to understand why. Why doesn’t this work? What
are we trying to do with this track? What emotion are we trying to convey?
It wasn’t like any album we’d ever made. It was hard, infuriating
even, and more than once we decided to abandon it. But we couldn’t.
We kept coming back to what did work, which we liked a lot, and we kept pushing
the material around, trying to make it yield the music we felt sure must be
in there, if we could only uncover it, draw it out. Often the questions we’d
been trying to answer only became clear once we’d arrived at their musical
answer. Death of the Sun, is for me, about loss, uncertainty, regret, dissipation.
(All aboard for Fun Time!) “Turok, Son of Stone,” coming in the
middle, is the album’s ecstatic moment, a sustained burst of energy
and joy. But elsewhere, there is little joy in Mudville.
John Fahey, who’d help inspire the album, died while we were making
it. So did several others. Some, Like Peter Kowald and Fahey, were musicians
we’d known and worked with. Others, like the Beach Boys’ Carl
Wilson and Florian Fricke of Popul Vuh, were ones whose music we’d grown
up with. To them, and to Robin’s dad, who also died during that time,
we dedicated the album.
Do you feel much of a kinship with any contemporary bands?
G.K.J.: Everyone in the band would answer differently, I
suspect. For me, not much, though, no. The bands I feel some kinship with
have, generally, been around for awhile and they, or their music, are old
friends. Which isn’t to say that you don’t make discoveries and
get excited by something new. But for me, that happens less often the older
Do you have a ghost story?
G.K.J.: I have the memory of a ghost story. It was 1960 or
‘61. I was eight or nine. My family was driving from Nebraska to California
to visit my mom’s parents, and we’d been on the road for a couple
days. My mother had turned the back seats of the Volkswagen van into a bed
for the long trip. My sister Erin -- who was only five or six at the time
— and I were making up stories in the darkness, and she came up with
a ghost story that scared the daylights out of me. In fact, I’m getting
goose bumps just thinking about it now. Yet I can’t remember a specific
thing about it, except that the ghost may have been blue.
G.P.: What’s the latest Cul de
G.K.J.: Two projects are on the boards: In 2002 we did a
three-week tour of the States and Canada with the legendary singer from Can,
Damo Suzuki. Early this year, we did another three-weeks with him in Europe
— altogether about 45 shows. Every show, as per Damo’s aesthetic,
was played cold. That is, each set was completely improvised; no rehearsals,
no set lists. (With all Damo’s restrictions, what else could the sets
be, but improvised? But Damo resists this word. He prefers to describe what
we do as “instant composition” -- songs invented on the spot,
pulled out of the air as though they’d already existed.)
We’re in the process of evaluating those recordings now, the goal being
to release a double CD of the best of the two tours. There’s some amazing
stuff here (the biggest challenge will be what to leave off the albums) and,
as is to be expected, there’s also some absolute crap. We’ve already
come up with nine or 10 pieces that are exciting and varied, and the makings
are there for a fine double album. These recordings contain some the best
drumming Proudman’s ever done, rivaling Jackie Leibezeit’s drumming
with Can, if that’s possible. Not to single out Jon, though. Everyone’s
playing is superb.
The second project is the reissue of our first album, ECIM, from 1990. The
album has been remastered, and some 15 or 20 minutes of previously unissued
studio recordings, by the 1990-’93 version of the band, will make its
first appearance. That should be out in Spring 2004. Both of these will be
issued by Strange Attractors Audio House.
How important are dreams or dreaming to your life or your art?
G.K.J.: I don’t know. I love those stories of Johnny
Cash dreaming the mariachi horn parts in “Ring of Fire,” or Karlheinz
Stockhausen dreaming whole pieces, such as Music in the Belly and Trans. Dreams
are very important, if Freud is to be credited.
You were one of the first people to buy a copy of the DREAM comics anthology;
do you follow comics?
G.K.J.: Yes, very much so, but, unfortunately, not as much
now as I did before I lost my day-job. Less disposable income these days,
What are some of your favorite titles or artists?
G.K.J.: Jeez. Well, I grew up with Ditko’s Spiderman
and Doctor Strange, Kirby’s Fantastic Four; and Warren’s ‘60s
horror comics, Creepy and Eerie; and Mad, of course, which was ubiquitous.
I learned about the classics from reprints, and fell in love with Krazy Kat,
Little Nemo, Prince Valiant, Tintin. The E.C.s, of course, were a real thwack
upside my young teenage brain, as the undergrounds would be few years later
— especially Crumb, who almost stands apart, and of whom I am an unapologetic
admirer. Rory Hayes. Kim Deitch. I’ve been reading American Splendor
since the first issue (Harvey Pekar reviewed the Cul de Sac/Fahey album for
the Boston Globe).
Of the more contemporary artists, Jim Woodring, Chris Ware, Seth, Julie Doucet,
James Kocholka, Brian Ralph, and Debby Drechsler are pure pleasure, and I
follow them in spite of having little comic book money.
The recent silhouette art of Blanquet is wonderful. I like the scratchboard
art of Thomas Ott and Erik Drooker, and I’m crazy about the “woodcut
novel” tradition they’re coming out of: Frans Masereel, Lynn Ward,
Otto Nuckel, Laurence Hyde, Giacomo Patri -- all people whose work I admire.
One of my all time favorite strips is Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. People
who only know the animated cartoon, or who haven’t read the ‘30s
/ ‘40s / ‘50s strips think it’s all cops and robbers. Man,
are they wrong! Gould’s universe is as dark, violent, random, godless,
grotesque, and haunted as anything in literature. Happiness is strived for,
but rarely found. It’s illusive, and superficial. Man and nature, good
and evil, meaning and meaninglessness toy with each other in grim chapter
after grim chapter. It’s great! Suspenseful, with perhaps the punchiest
dialogue of any comic, and the artwork is incredibly dramatic. Wish somebody
would reissue these in large format, restored and cleaned up, like Russ Cochran
did with his EC reprints.
Is Cul de Sac psychedelic?
G.K.J.: Oh yeah, where were we? I hope so. I don’t
mean “psychedelic” in the ghastly,
retro “how can we neatly characterize this, file it away, and dismiss
it” fashion. Rather, I mean psychedelic in the way Michael Karoli of
Can once defined it: “All great music is psychedelic — it takes
you somewhere else.” By Karoli’s definition, Charlie Patton is
as psychedelic as the Shaggs or Miles Davis, a definition that appeals to
me more than usual one, suggesting mainly wah-wah pedals, the influence of
drugs, and endless jamming. I mean, that can take you “somewhere else”
too, but why limit it to that?
Who are some of your favorite authors?
G.K.J.: Colette, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Paul Fussell, Dino Buzzatti,
Kenneth Fearing, Primo Levi, Liam O’Flaherty, Robert Walser, Daniil
Kharms, Richard Meltzer, Anne Frank.
Would you list a few favorite recordings?
G.K.J.: How about favorite things from this year, or that
I’ve listened to most recently?
International Harvester International Harvester
Mohiuddin Dagar Raga Yaman
Miles Davis Jack Johnson (new box set)
Jack Rose Opium Musick
Various Fiddle Music of Kentucky (7-CD set)
Love Forever Changes
Country Gazette World Standard
Roscoe Holcomb An Untamed Sense of Control
Hans Reichel Coco Bolo Nights
Various Surf Guitar Treasures Vol. 1 & 2
Lulu Cortes y ze Ramalho Paebiru
Dean Carter Call of the Wild
The Handsome Family Through the Trees
Jelly Roll Morton Last Sessions
Harry Partch U.S Highball (Dean Drummond and company’s recent recording
is just great — rivals Partch’s own, and in better fidelity.)
Bruce Langhorne The Hired Hand (soundtrack to Peter Fonda’s directorial
Artists I always come back to, ones who are never off my stereo for long:
Erik Satie, the Comedian Harmonists, John Fahey, Jimi Hendrix, Olivier Messiaen,
Morton Feldman, Gurdjieff/DeHartmann, Giacinto Scelsi, Nikhil Banerjee, Robbie
Basho, Augustin Barrios, Tim Buckley, John Lee Hooker, Charles Ives.
At this point is Cul de Sac a distinct identity, or an ever shifting entity?
G.K.J.: Ever-shifting, definitely. Death of the Sun and the
two tours with Damo proved that, to ourselves anyway. With Death, we had to
throw away much that didn’t work and start again; revisit, reconsider,
reject and start again; argue, threaten, cajole, wheedle and start again.
Onstage with Damo, night after night, we had to be ready for anything; we
had to be brave, and each of us had to be ready to stand and deliver and to
be willing to fail.
What good is art?
G.K.J.: It’s the only good. I despair of our country
and our leaders, of the world and its leaders. I feel not just out of step
with the majority of the people who I share this planet with, but out of time
as well. I’m an atheist. Art and love are the only things that sustain
me and give me hope; it is only through art that I come close to comprehending
Sakhalin b/w Cant 7" (Shock UK, 1992)
Doldrums b/w ...his teeth got lost in the mattress... 7" (Nuf Sed, 1992)
Frankie Machine b/w K 7" (Lunar Rotation, 1993)
Milk Devil b/w Rain Moths 7" (New World of Sound, 1993)
The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California b/w Hagstrom 7" (Earworm
ECIM (CD/LP Rough Trade/Capella non-US 1991) (CD Northeastern US 1991)
I Don't Want to Go to Bed (CD Nuf Sed 1995) (CD/LP Flying Nun 1995) (CD Thirsty
China Gate (CD Thirsty Ear 1996) (CD/LP Flying Nun 1996)
The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (with John Fahey) (CD Thirsty Ear 1997)
Crashes to Light, Minutes to its Fall (CD Thirsty Ear, 1999)
Immortality Lessons (CD Strange Attractors 2002)
Death of the Sun (CD Strange Attractors 2003)
The Strangler's Wife (CD Strange Attractors 2003)
Glenn Jones: This Is The Wind That Blows It Out (Strange Attractors 2004)
Cul de Sac with Damo Suzuki: Abhayamudra (2xCD Strange Attractors 2004)